What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?

PAULA’S QUESTION:

When people say their loved one went to heaven, why doesn’t the preacher tell them that no-one goes straight to heaven? If they did, what would be the reason for the resurrection?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Christian doctrine says that after death a believer’s soul enters the presence of God in the blessedness of heaven, and then in the end times will be reunited with a transformed body. Christianity contrasts with Eastern religions’ belief in reincarnation, a long series of rebirths into varied conditions and biological species based upon performance in the prior life.

With typical Presbyterian precision, the Christian teaching is spelled out in the 17th Century Westminster Confession, accompanied by citations of 14 Bible texts:

“The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption, but their souls, (which neither die nor sleep,) having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.” Then at “the last day . . . all the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.”

The modern-day Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the same: “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection” at “the end of the world” when Christ returns.

The church’s Lateran Council (A.D. 1215) said believers “will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear” and Jesus Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” citing biblical Philippians 3:21 and the major resurrection passage of 1 Corinthians 15:35-53. For more on Catholic theology see Pope Benedict XII’s encyclical “Benedictus Deus” (1336) and teachings on this from the Councils of Florence (1438-1445) and of Trent (1545-1563).

Catholicism adds one aspect. The catechism says believers “who die in God’s grace and friendship” are “assured of their eternal salvation,” but if they are “still imperfectly purified” they “undergo purification so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Regarding this intermediate state of Purgatory, the catechism commends earthly believers’ indulgences, works of penance and charity, prayers, and Masses on behalf of the dead “so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.” Protestants disagree and this may receive attention during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Eastern Orthodoxy, which defines no concept of a Purgatory, shares the standard Christian view. Britain’s Bishop Kallistos writes that “the redemtion and the glorification of matter” means that “at the Last Day the righteous will rise from the grave and be united once more to a body — not such a body as we now possess but one that is transfigured.”

Do those in heaven restore fellowship with deceased loved ones? Most people assume so but, surprisingly, the Bible is vague. Christian interpreters typically say yes due to biblical suggestions such as a dead believer “gathered to his people,” and the conviction that a loving God would not deny this important comfort to those who believe in him.

Variations:

The Seventh-day Adventist Church generally follows orthodox doctrines but regarding death has a tenet nicknamed “soul sleep.” The Fundamental Beliefs (1980) specify that although bodies will be resurrected upon Christ’s return, “until that day death is an unconscious state for all people.” Heaven for believers customarily involves hell for non-believers, but Adventists are among proponents of “annihilationism” in which God’s mercy means the unrighteous ultimately cease to exist and avoid eternal punishment.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, heterodox on many points by conventional Christian standards, teach versions of soul sleep and annihilation. On the latter, the doctrinal book “Let God Be True” depicts the “destruction” to which the Devil, his demons, and “all human opposers of Jehovah’s theocratic government will go, and from which condition there is no resurrection or recovery.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon”), which likewise departs from mainstream Christianity, describes “a state of rest, a state of peace” following death while spirits await the ultimate reunion with the body. Unique LDS tenets hold that each personal spirit had an unremembered heavenly existence before birth, and that earthly believers’ vicarious baptisms offer salvation to spirits who died apart from true latter-day faith.

Christian Science, a “new thought” philosophy quite distinct from Christianity, believes that there is no such thing as death. Founder Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” explained that death is an “illusion” because “matter has no life, hence it has no real existence.” Only “Mind is immortal” and therefore “any material evidence of death is false.”

(The Guy may post a subsequent item on Jewish concepts. Note that prior archived Q & A items also treat heaven and who gets there, what about hell, and the purgatory issue.)

 

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